WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Trade Commission moved to ban suave Joe Camel Wednesday, charging R.J. Reynolds with using the popular cartoon advertising campaign to target children.
RJR, the nation’s No. 2 tobacco firm, vowed to vigorously fight the charge of unfair advertising as “unprecedented, unfounded and unwarranted.”
The cigarette industry already has offered to kill Joe Camel as part of a settlement to a legal assault on the tobacco industry by state attorneys general, anti-smoking activists and plaintiffs in private product liability suits.
Members of Congress, which must approve any settlement, and tobacco foes said the FTC’s action now removes the industry’s offer as one of its bargaining chips.
“Today’s FTC decision should take this issue off the table for the ongoing negotiations,” declared Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., who organized a bipartisan petition of 67 House members that pushed the FTC to investigate Joe Camel. “We have successfully snuffed out Joe Camel.”
But Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore said even broader advertising curbs are still an ingredient of the peace deal he is negotiating on behalf of 31 states that have sued the industry.
“We need to stop the Joe Camels that we can’t even imagine before they hurt our kids, not after,” Moore said. “It’s a crime that FTC has taken so long to act.”
Moore, however, failed to convince health organizations Wednesday that his proposed deal would improve public health. The groups’ backing is considered important for any settlement to pass Congress.
Meanwhile, Joe Camel fans and foes shouldn’t expect the “cool” cartoon character in his trademark dark sunglasses to disappear immediately from billboards and other ads. The FTC must first prove its charge before an administrative law judge, which could take slightly more than a year. The first hearing is June 24.
The commission typically wins such cases, said former FTC chief Michael Pertschuk, now an anti-tobacco activist.
But New York marketing law expert Linda Goldstein said the case will be a tough one for the FTC to prove. The commission, she said, will have to show Joe Camel causes children to start smoking. If it can’t, “they can’t win.”
RJR predicted it will win. “Joe Camel has become the government’s scapegoat for issues our society has been unable to resolve,” said spokeswoman Peggy Carter.
The FTC is seeking to ban Joe Camel from most advertising, except in ads placed in bars and nightclubs that restrict minors, and order RJR to conduct anti-teen-smoking education for 10 years. The company also would be forced to supply teen smoking data for each of its brands.
Just three years ago, the commission essentially exonerated Joe Camel. But on Wednesday it voted 3-2 to conclude the that new evidence showed RJR was using unfair advertising practices.
“Joe Camel has become as recognizable to kids as Mickey Mouse,” said Jodie Bernstein, the commission’s director of consumer trade protection. “Wine, women and song were part of his activities. These are calculated, we believe, to create a character young people want to be a part of.”
She argued that the FTC won’t have to prove Joe Camel caused children to smoke, but merely contributed to their decision.
After Joe Camel debuted in 1987, Camel cigarettes’ share of the youth market — under 18 — jumped from less than 3 percent to more than 13 percent by 1993, the FTC said.